Today I’m pondering beginnings – the genesis of ideas, the evolution of trends, the impact on the world. I’m also thinking about connectedness, and in a sense, endings; the mysterious (and yet sometimes inevitable) way daily happenings have of winding together into a single narrative, like the conclusion of a Seinfeld episode.
I’m practicing Spanish again, a midlife relaunch toward a fluency goal I’ve had since my glory days as Mariana in Senora Clement’s sixth hour class. (Had I paid as much attention to my workbook as I had to a particular senior boy, I might be writing this en espanol today.) Current-day tactics include watching Netflix with Spanish subtitles, listening to podcasts, and occasional forays into Babbel. My favorite activity, though—and perhaps the most effective— is pulling up two versions of the New York Times online, clicking the translate button on one of them, and deciphering the headlines.
This one caught my eye immediately: “Duvall Hecht, fundador de Books on Tape, muere a los 91 años”. Duvall Hecht, Founder of Books on Tape, Is Dead at 91. His desire to listen to something enriching on his daily commute, the byline read, led him to start the company whose success made audiobooks a commercial phenomenon.
At first glance, you might think this guy was some kind of book-obsessed nerd with nothing better to do. Quite the contrary! The dude was a fighter pilot in the marines, won a gold medal in pairs rowing with his Stanford buddy James Fifer at the ’56 Summer Games and worked as an investment adviser for reputable firms. But wait—there’s more! In his seventies he decided to pull the trigger on a lifelong dream, finishing out the last seven years of his career as a long-haul truck driver, which—as you may have guessed— allowed him plenty of time to tune into books on tape.
Book recordings originated as a solution for blind people to have the opportunity to read novels. Had this niche not been pulled out of obscurity by Mr. Hecht, we may have continued with ableist book-reading culture for decades longer. The market eventually evolved from cassettes to CDs to digital audiobooks, which now make up almost 96 percent of the $1.3 billion industry in the United States.
The ability to hold a book—to open the cover, flip through the pages, read the back flap, smell the fresh paper—is one I am most grateful for, every day of my life. This is not an exaggeration. Growing up in suburban Detroit, some of my fondest memories of my mother involve reading. In late afternoons of spring, summer and fall—when the weather was nice enough—she would sit on the sunlit front porch in a tri-colored lawn chair, legs crossed, hand under her chin, engrossed in a romance novel beneath her pink visor. We knew not to disturb her reading time (yet I suspected we did anyways, darn kids), and that image—of peace and tranquility, but most of all ease of movement, of her hand turning the page, or twisting her short dark hair—is one that comes to me nearly every day still, two and a half decades on.
Did I take it all for granted, back then? Did I fully appreciate the many roles she played in our lives—chauffer, cook, teacher, girl scout leader, PTA member, mender of hearts, cheerleader of accomplishments and good deeds? Did I know, when I rolled my eyes as she cut out yet another clipping of a friend’s success from the local paper, to be accompanied by a congratulatory note, sealed and mailed to said friend or neighbor—did I know that less than 15 years later those hands would cease to move, [and that I would spend the rest of my life hating that young girl for her pompous nature]?
Of course I didn’t know. And you, dear reader, couldn’t have known either. Whatever guilt, shame and regret you are holding onto for actions of the past need to be let go. Whatever has happened to your mother, father, grandparent, child, spouse, friend—you couldn’t have known. We cannot exist in a continual cycle of what-ifs, of beating ourselves up for the things we took for granted, the conversations we could have had, the people we think we should have been. I sometimes find that, the more time that distances me from that prideful ten-year-old, the more I despise her, parading around from school to figure skating to softball, reading books to her heart’s desire, sitting down to dinner every night without a fucking clue of how much privilege has been afforded here, of how good things are. I want to shake her, scream at her, give her a glimpse into the future—of the years of pain and slow decline that lie ahead.
Today, I will take a different path. I will reorient this destructive thinking into gratitude—for Mr. Hecht and his first wife, Sigrid, for paving a more accessible path to books and knowledge. If not for them, my mother may not have had the option of listening to her romance novels and rock and roll biographies on CD, and we may not have the wide variety of choices to gift them to her. The last four years of her time on Earth—in which neck-down paralysis asserted itself and the afternoons became long—audiobooks were her lifeline, allowing her to escape to other worlds, allowing her to continue those blissful days turning pages in the sun.